Chardonnay

Vézelay: Burgundy’s Flyover Country

14 November 2016
Vézelay

Vézelay

I regarded the Burgundy map in my World Atlas of Wine with some consternation. In the midst of planning my road trip from Paris to Beaune, I noticed an immense gap between Burgundy’s northernmost vineyards, surrounding Chablis, and its most famous, stretched along the Côte d’Or. The shortest route between my hotels in Chablis and Beaune was 82.6 miles, and the idea of driving that entire length — almost an hour and a half — without stopping for a drink seemed incomprehensible.

Then I noticed it: a little dogbone-shaped speck of pink, hiding in the map’s vast sea of grey flanking the A6 highway. This speck represented Bourgogne Vézelay, which the World Atlas calls a “recondite mini-appellation.” Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a recondite mini-appellation, especially one close to such a lovely (if touristy) town as Vézelay. I planned a detour.

The Oxford Companion to Wine had little to say about the appellation, but my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was a bit more encouraging, noting that Vézelay’s “top-performing white wines… are superior to the lower end of Chablis, which is relatively much more expensive.” To determine what the top-performing white was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I simply googled “best Vézelay winery.”

Domaine de la CadetteAnd it worked! Google suggested Domaine de la Cadette, the wines of which are imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Trusting in the judgment of Google and Lynch, I added the winery’s tasting room to my itinerary.

The words “Burgundian winery” might conjure visions of grand châteaux, but that’s only occasionally the case in the Côte d’Or, much less in Vézelay. The tasting room looked quite unassuming, in fact, and as I pulled into its parking lot, it also looked quite closed.

Ever hopeful, I walked into the similarly unassuming restaurant, the name of which translates approximately to “The Foot in the Plate” (it sounds ever so much more charming in French). Inside Le Pied dans le Plat, I met the delightful and thankfully English-speaking Martine, who explained that the tasting room had indeed permanently closed. However, the restaurant and winery were affiliated, and I asked if I could do a tasting for my blog. Martine was happy to oblige.

ChanterellesI settled into a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, decorated with potted succulents interspersed with old green demijohns. A young waitress sat nearby, brushing the dirt from a gorgeous pile of golden chanterelle mushrooms. Martine appeared with the first bottles, and I poured myself a bit of the Melon.

Melon de Bourgogne, in spite of its name, has little presence in Burgundy nowadays, long ago supplanted by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc now grows more commonly in the Loire. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Melon’s increasing importance today rests solely on Muscadet, although it is also grown to a limited extent in Vézelay…”

The Melon vineyards in Vézelay may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, but the wine they make can certainly be delicious. The 2014 La Soeur Cadette Melon had an appealingly minerally aroma and zesty flavor, with tart green-apple fruit, lively limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Domaine de la Cadette Pinot NoirI also tried two cheerful Chardonnays, the 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “La Châtelaine” and the 2014 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Galerne” (Valentin Montanet of Domaine Montanet-Thoden is the son of Jean and Catherine Montanet, founders of  Domaine de la Cadette, and the wineries are intimately linked). The organic “La Châtelaine” had fresh, creamy fruit leavened with bright, lingering spice — a wonderful contrast. But I liked the “Galerne,” named for a local wind, even better. It had a rounder aroma, more subtle flavors and a more complex journey: the creamy fruit started taut, unwinding and opening into gentle lemon-lime citrus and some light ginger spice.

I also tried two charming Pinot Noirs. The 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “Champs Cadet” tasted light and fruity, with a pop of spice. It wasn’t especially deep or complicated, but there’s nothing wrong with a wine that’s simply lively and fun. The 2012 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Garance” was more serious, with an unusual pink-aspirin aroma and a less fruity character. It tasted more earthy and meaty, with darker, brooding fruit and subtler spice.

Feeling quite comfortable by now at my little table on the terrace, I ordered some trout meunière for lunch. The fish had perfectly crispy skin and delicate flesh, and luscious butter soaked the potatoes and fresh vegetables. Martine tentatively asked me how it tasted. She looked relieved to hear my praise, and said, “Some people complain about all the butter.”

Trout meuniere“That’s insane,” I replied. Ordering trout meunière and complaining about the butter is like ordering steak tartare and complaining that your beef is undercooked.

The tight and citrusy “Galerne” Chardonnay was a perfect foil for the trout, cutting right through the buttery richness. I’d had more elegant wines in Chablis, and I would soon indulge in much fancier food in Beaune, but at that moment, with that trout and that Chardonnay, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than the sunny terrace of The Foot in the Plate.

Burgundy has other “recondite” appellations, and one of my favorites is St. Bris, which produces delicious Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about St. Bris and how I made a fool of myself in Whole Foods, click here

The Federalist At “Hamilton”: Wines Fit For A Founding Father

29 October 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton

A cast party seemed like an odd venue in which to taste wine, but as a recovering theater major, I have a soft spot for musicals. Getting a new one off the ground can be tough, especially if it’s a wordy period piece, and I decided that if my blog post about the partner wine of the musical can also help promote a good show, then so much the better. So I accepted the invitation to the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton.

Serving glasses of a wine named The Federalist during the intermission of a musical about Alexander Hamilton would seem gimmicky if the quality were less than excellent. After all, who cares if the wine’s name ties in to the theme of the show if it doesn’t taste any good?

Federalist Sonoma County ChardonnayAs we entered the party, I wasted no time in scooping up a glass of the 2015 Federalist Sonoma County Chardonnay. In general, Sonoma has a cooler climate than Napa, because the county is closer to the cool ocean currents off the coast. Cooler temperatures often result in higher acidity, which means that Sonoma Chardonnays are less likely to be blowsy and overripe than Napa Chardonnays.

And indeed, this Federalist Chardonnay was a well-balanced beauty. It suckered me right in with its aroma of buttered popcorn and a bit of tropical fruit. The fruit tasted rich and ripe, and there was an overlay of oak. Some people despise butter and oak, I know, but in the right proportions, they can be gorgeous flavors. Especially when they’re balanced, as they were here, by ample acids and a shaft of white pepper spice. This wine sells for about $14-$16 a bottle, which is a fantastic value for the money. Comparable white Burgundies cost twice as much.

I also tried the 2014 Federalist Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I approached with no small measure of skepticism. At this summer’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I tried a handful of Cabernet Sauvignons, and I found only one I could actually recommend. Now, I’m pleased to report, I have two. I enjoyed the cool, clean, rich fruit, the lively and rustic acids, the perk of white pepper spice and the supple tannins. It had some finesse, this Cabernet, and again, it’s surprisingly affordable at around $17 a bottle. Another fine value.

Federalist Dueling PistolsI noticed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and the star of the production on Broadway, standing not far away, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Federalist wines and their partnership with his show. I had just started my question when Mr. Miranda took the opportunity to give me a pithy quote: “I have to go over there now,” he said.

Well, he’s more of a whiskey drinker in any case.

His speedy departure gave me a moment to try the third wine offered at the cast party, the 2012 Federalist Dry Creek Valley “Dueling Pistols” blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Syrah. I was especially excited to try this wine, because I can’t recall ever trying such a blend. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Sonoma’s “Dry Creek Valley still has a reputation for some of the finest examples of [Zinfandel],” and certainly this wine gave me no cause to dispute that assertion.

The “Dueling Pistols” smelled of rich, ripe fruit and tobacco — one of my favorite combinations. I absolutely loved its opulent fruit leavened with zesty spice, ample tannins and more of that wonderful tobacco on the finish. This wine is rich, dark and very sexy. It costs more than the others, around $35-$40 a bottle, but every penny you spend is repaid on your tongue.

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone with a bottle of “Dueling Pistols”

Heading back to the bar for more, I turned around to discover Mario Cantone, of Sex and the City fame. He knew the Federalist wines well, since he spends quite a bit of time in Sonoma, and he agreed that the Chardonnay in particular is “delicious.”

The lead of the Chicago Hamilton production, Miguel Cervantes, approached us as we were chatting, and it turned out that he had never tried any of the Federalist wines. My quick-thinking friend Liz Barrett of Terlato (The Federalist’s distributor) offered to get him a glass so that he could give one a try, and she returned with a sample of the “Dueling Pistols.”

Mr. Cervantes proved quite adept at describing his experience with the wine. He gave it a smell, and said, “Oh yes, I like bigger, spicier wines.” After giving the “Dueling Pistols” a sip, he said, “I like the dry start — it’s not a Kool-Aid start like some Syrahs.” He took another taste and continued, “It gets in there dry, and then it’s a big old kick-you-in-the-face finish. I like it a lot.”

Me too. After trying this superb Zinfandel/Syrah blend, I have to wonder why we don’t see that combination more often. It really works. And even at $35 or $40 a bottle, the “Dueling Pistols” goes down a lot more easily than the price of a Hamilton ticket.

Note: The samples of these wines and the tickets to the cast party were provided free of charge.

The Not Very Odd Wines Of Chris Hanna

12 September 2015
Chris Hanna

Chris Hanna

I’m going to take a post and write about some wines that are neither obscure nor especially unusual, and it’s for a very important reason. In fact, it’s for the most important reason to drink a wine. More on that in a moment.

Chris Hanna, the engaging president of Hanna Winery & Vineyards, recently hosted a wine tasting and dinner at Ravinia, one of Chicagoland’s loveliest outdoor concert venues. The torrential downpour we suffered throughout the event must have come as a bit of a shock to this Sonoma winemaker and cookbook author accustomed to drought conditions in California.

The worrisome drought was the topic of the audience’s first question for Hanna. Fortunately, the dry conditions haven’t caused her vineyards to shrivel. “The premium wine grape crop is of such value,” she explained, “they’re not going to cut off our water. Yet. If we have one more year [of drought], we may have to meter,” she added in a slightly more ominous tone. But at least for this vintage, Napa and Sonoma wine lovers have no need to panic, she reassured us.

Hanna made her first vintage of wine “at the tender age of 12,” when her family had 12 acres of vines in the Russian River Valley, which, at the time, “were in the middle of nowhere.” She expanded Hanna Winery’s holdings to 600 acres today, split among vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the warmer Alexander Valley farther to the north and farther from the cooling influence of the Pacific, and the high-elevation Mayacamas Mountains yet farther inland.

Hanna Winery wines at RaviniaHanna’s early winemaking start now pays hefty dividends. Her 2014 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, for example, gets everything right. Hanna notes that in Sonoma, “high-tone flavors don’t get baked out by the sun,” and she maximizes the Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent freshness by picking the grapes at night and fermenting in stainless steel. The wine had that zesty, grassy, minerally aroma I love in a Sauvignon Blanc. It tasted focused and bright, with lively grapefruity acids and edges rounded by a bit of malolactic fermentation. It sliced through some rich Boucheron cheese like a knife. An excellent value for $19 a bottle.

The 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay displayed similar attention to balance. I’ve frequently hear from people scarred by butter bombs that they don’t care for California Chardonnay, or even any Chardonnay at all. I can empathize — I once had a harrowing experience with some Toasted Head. And indeed, this Chardonnay has some wood and butter to it, imparted by aging in French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation. But this wine exhibited beautiful balance, with ripely peachy fruit and broad, lively acids. The Chardonnay felt fresh in spite of its oak and butter notes, and I loved it. A fine splurge for $29.

The finesse of the 2013 Alexander Cabernet Sauvignon impressed me, too. Actually a Bordeaux-style blend of 77% Cabernet, 17% Malbec and 6% Merlot, this wine undergoes a hot and fast fermentation (slow and cool is more common) to avoid harsh, dry tannins. And indeed those tannins were supple, especially considering the wine’s youth. It had a delightfully rich, jammy aroma; big, cool fruit and a shot of black pepper spice. It’s not inexpensive at $42, but this wine has the power and grace to back up that price tag.

Unexpectedly, my favorite of the evening was the 2013 Bismark Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel. Hanna “challenged [herself] to become a Zin believer” and worked hard to create a Zinfandel vineyard on a steep and rocky slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. Although a pain for humans to work, such terrain tends to work beautifully for wine. Grape clusters in this vineyard are tiny, Hanna explained, which means she can get “so much extraction that you Chris Hanna at dinner in Ravinianever get on flat ground.” Indeed, the wine was dark, and it smelled of dusky dried black fruit. Zinfandels can all too easily become overly jammy and ponderous, but this one started cool and clean, moving from big fruit to big spice to some refined tannins on the finish. Something savory underneath added complexity. I don’t drink much Zinfandel, I must admit, but if I could spend $64 on a bottle, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this one.

It was a delight to taste these wines both alone and with a delicious al fresco dinner, during which their acids helped them work well with a range of different foods.

Which brings me to why, as Odd Bacchus, I would write about these wines at all. To be honest, it’s because I wanted to. I love drinking the unusual and obscure, obviously, but it seemed unnecessarily doctrinaire to deny myself the pleasure of these expertly crafted Sonoma wines.

Wine should always be a pleasure, and I can’t think of a more valid, compelling reason to choose a particular bottle than simply “because I wanted to.” Maybe you’re drinking Chardonnay when you “should” be drinking Malbec. Or maybe you’re drinking, ahem, Sonoma Zinfandel when you should be drinking Slovak Dunaj. But life is too short to shame yourself about the wine you want to drink. “Because I want to” is all the justification you need.

Note: These wines and the accompanying dinner were provided free of charge.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Chardonnay Shame

21 February 2015
Sunday asado in Mendoza

A Sunday asado in Mendoza

The wine drinking culture in America is so much more open than it used to be. Notions such as “sweet wines are for amateurs” hold less weight than ever, and yet, it’s still surprisingly common to encounter people who feel some shame about the wine they like to drink.

I recently had the fortune to spend some time in Mendoza, Argentina, where I met Meredith and Jeff, a friendly American couple, at a Sunday asado. As our plates were filled with beef and pork and sausages and sweetbreads, our conversation turned to wine, as most conversations in Mendoza do.

“We’ve been so impressed by the wine here,” Jeff said, and I certainly did not disagree. I chose the wineries I visited carefully, but even so, the refined craftsmanship, ripe fruit and focus of almost all the wines I tried had left me thoroughly impressed as well. The quality to price ratio of wine in Mendoza is incredibly high.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Meredith said with a sigh. “But I think we’re going home with more Chardonnay than Malbec! I know I’m not supposed to like it, but…” and she shrugged, seemingly embarrassed about her taste in wine.

Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata

Her remark pushed my buttons. “What?” I exclaimed, a little too loudly. “Of course you like it. The Chardonnays here are beautiful!”

And they are. I remembered the 2012 Catena Alta Chardonnay I tasted in the Mayan pyramid-shaped winery of Catena Zapata: “Ample spice balancing creamy fruit —  well-integrated wood, spice and fruit,” I wrote in my notes. The 2013 Chardonnay I tried in the historic Terrazas de los Andes winery had a luscious mouthfeel, zesty acids and focused white-pepper spice. A delight. At The Vines Resort, I tried a lively 2014 Chardonnay straight from the steel tank, their first attempt at an unoaked Chardonnay. The fruit tasted surprisingly rich, balanced by some sharp, gingery spice.

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

And I especially loved the two single-vineyard Chardonnays I tasted at Viña Cobos, the winery of famed winemaker Paul Hobbs. The gorgeous 2013 Bramare Marchiori Vineyard Chardonnay had very ripe fruit and sweet notes of caramel and vanilla, but bright acids kept it from being heavy. Even the entry-level 2014 Felino Chardonnay was delicious, with some tropical fruit notes, a focused shaft of white-pepper spice and something savory on the finish.

Malbec or no Malbec, how could someone not like fruity, well-balanced Chardonnays like these? I told Meredith that she was absolutely right to like the Chardonnays, and, fully surrendering to the button Meredith had pushed, I demanded that she proudly own her preference: “I want you to say, ‘Yes! I like Mendoza Chardonnay, and there is nothing wrong with that!'” Though slightly startled, Meredith, to her credit, did exactly what I asked.

I had bad boundaries with Meredith, and I’m going to have bad boundaries with you as well. Don’t let anyone tell you that the wine you like is wrong, even if the person telling you that is yourself.

Postcard From New Mexico

28 August 2013
Ponderosa Chardonnay

Ponderosa Chardonnay

Who knew New Mexican wines could be so delicious? I’ve tasted quite a few so far, and it hasn’t been a case of unearthing a few gems in a sea of mediocrity. The vast majority of the wines I’ve sampled have been well-crafted and delicious enough for me to want a second glass. In fact, the only true disappointment of the trip has been a mouth-puckeringly tart Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend from France’s Loire Valley!

What a contrast to the Chardonnay pictured above, produced by Ponderosa Valley Vineyards. I drank this delightful wine over a relaxing al fresco lunch at the surprisingly pleasant Museum Café, set between Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The Ponderosa Chardonnay had a lovely green-gold color and a fresh, limey aroma. It started sweet, with a note of honeysuckle, but the wine was admirably balanced with gingery spice and bright acids. Paired with some duck flautas, the spiciness of the wine really jumped out.

This Chardonnay retails for about $17.50, according to the Ponderosa website, which seems like quite a fine deal to me. If I see a bottle in a store, you can be sure I’ll be snapping it right up.

Summery Wines From The Heel Of The Boot

5 July 2013

CanteleItay’s DOC system doesn’t always work as originally planned, most notably evidenced by the rise of Super Tuscans, which long had to be labeled as simple table wine in spite of their high quality. But Tuscany isn’t the only part of Italy which had to rethink its classification system. Sine 1992, a host of regions have adopted the IGT category (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) in an attempt to deal with the embarrassing number of Vino da Tavola wines selling for much higher prices than the supposedly superior DOC bottlings.

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, was one such region to buy into the IGT system, and the Salento IGT encompasses the entire peninsula. This more flexible classification system, along with increased foreign demand for wine in the 1990s, led to significant improvements in Pugliese viticulture, though even today, less than a quarter of Puglia’s wine production is sold by the bottle, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The rest is sold in bulk, making its way into vermouth, cheap blended wine and brandy.

Nevertheless, the reputation of the Pugliese wine that does make it into bottles is steadily improving, as innovative winemakers focus on lower yields and high-quality grape varieties, both local and international. The large Cantele Winery is one such venture. The family has been in the wine business since just after World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Canteles started buying their own vineyards and growing their own grapes.

I had the fortune to receive complimentary samples of three of Cantele’s wines, two of which demonstrated the success and value of the IGT classification system. The World Atlas of Wine has unkind words for IGT Chardonnay del Salento, calling these wines “anodyne shelf-fillers,” but I certainly enjoyed the 2011 Cantele Chardonnay del Salento. If you like your whites bright and un-oaky, you’ll enjoy it too.  Friends with whom I tasted this wine had plenty to say about its aroma, calling it “bready,” “creamy and tart,” and “peary, but not like a mealy Bartlett pear, it’s more of a Bosc.” Another taster, less sure of his aroma-detecting capabilities, asked, “Does it smell nutty? Or am I having a stroke?”

I also got notes of pear in the aroma (variety uncertain), along with some heady honeysuckle. It tasted crisp and juicy, with a bit of honey on the finish along with some gingery spice. Lively and light on its feet, I suspect most people would never guess this was a Chardonnay. It’s a perfect choice for a hot summer afternoon. According to Wine Searcher, it retails for an average of $12 — an excellent value.

The second IGT wine we sampled was a rosé of Negroamaro, an ancient variety that is a specialty of Puglia. “Negroamaro” translates as either “black bitter” or “black black,” depending on whether you work with Italian or Latin and Greek. The second translation, albeit repetitious, seems most likely, since this variety originated in Greece, arriving in Italy with Greek colonists in the 6th or 7th century B.C., according to the Oxford Companion.

I’d never tried a rosé made from Negroamaro, and so it was with some excitement I poured myself a glass of the 2011 Cantele Negroamaro Rosato. Straight out of the fridge, it didn’t have much of a bouquet — only when it warmed up a bit did I detect some red berries, chalk and a hint of something floral. On the palate, however, it offered plenty of sunny, strawberry fruit and some bracing minerals, reminiscent of pink aspirin. It felt sprightly throughout, and I liked the spicy lift at the end. Selling for just $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher, it’s a fun and unique choice for a picnic or barbeque.

The third wine in the sample was not an IGT — it conforms to the stricter regulations of Salice Salentino, a landlocked DOC right in the middle of the Salento peninsula. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in the Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the 2009 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

Since Cantele produces about two million bottles each year, according to its website, you have a fighting chance of finding one or more of its well-priced wines in your local shop. I’m certainly going to keep my eye out for them. And if any of you folks have sampled Cantele’s 100% Verdeca, let me know — I’m itching to give it a try.

Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased Kluge’s winery, as well as the front lawn of her palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

Some Trump wines worked better than others. Calling the rather tart Chardonnay “Chablis-style” was a bit of an exaggeration; it lacked Chablis’ steely, minerally, focused vigor. The Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, and Bordeaux-style blends were all pleasant enough, but it was the sparkling wines, produced in the traditional Champenoise method, that really caught my attention. The Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) had a strawberry and honey nose, a touch of sweet apples on the palate, and ample but elegantly small bubbles. Berry notes marked the aromas of the Rosé as well. This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had some currants and yeast to it, along with those same delightful bubbles. The Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir) had an almost jammy nose, but lemony acids, some yeastiness and a dry finish kept it balanced. Well, I suppose it makes sense that Trump’s Champagne-style wines were the most successful!

A two-minute drive away, Blenheim Vineyards has a dramatic vaulted tasting room overlooking a wide tract of vineyards. The space alone makes a visit worthwhile, particularly since you can bring your own picnic to enjoy with some Blenheim wine on the terrace. All of Blenheim’s wines had very prominent, food-friendly acids, and they would surely be fun with some picnic fare. But tasted without food, most of the wines were a little over-acidic for my taste. I did enjoy the Viognier, with its honeysuckle nose, tropical fruit flavors and limey acids, and the light-bodied Cabernet Franc, with surprising aromas of vanilla, dark fruit flavors and very bright acids. I wish I could have tasted these wines with food, because I suspect the acids would have felt more in balance.

Next Up: The four wineries you absolutely shouldn’t miss in Virginia.

Philadelphia Degustation – Part 1

25 July 2012

Philadelphia may mix a mean cocktail, but the wine scene isn’t too shabby either. I was delighted to discover that most restaurants I visited had something unusual on their wine-by-the-glass menus, and I availed myself of the opportunity to try a number of deliciously odd vintages.

For your vicarious pleasure, a six-course tasting menu complete with wine pairings:

COURSE 1: Languedoc Blanc de Blancs

To start, a non-vintage Jean-Louis Denois Brut Blanc de Blancs from France’s Languedoc region, sampled at Le Bec Fin. A wine from this rather humble region seemed almost out of place at this relentlessly formal restaurant, where a bust of Marie Antoinette peers unironically at diners through cascades of crystal chandeliers. Even today, inconsistent Languedoc produces vast seas of boring vin ordinaire as well as exciting terroir-focused varietals (unusual in a country known mostly for blends).

In keeping with Languedoc fashion, this varietal sparkling wine is 100% Chardonnay, as indicated by the words “Blanc de Blancs” on the label. My initial feelings of suspicion were quickly assuaged. The wine had a rather green aroma, and it started tight and tart on the palate before opening up into flavors of apples and yeast. Bubbles felt prickly but elegantly small. Delicious. It cut right through the richness of some seared Hudson Valley foie gras, making for an excellent pairing. Even so, it’s hard to get over the eye-popping $19 per-flute price tag. That’s the average price for an entire bottle, according to Wine Searcher! Well, I suppose Le Bec Fin has to pay for all that gilt somehow.

COURSE 2: Grüner Veltliner

Next, a refreshing glass of Austria’s most famous variety, Grüner Veltliner, sipped at farm-to-table sensation Talula’s Garden. This food-friendly variety has a murky and fascinating history. Genetic testing revealed that one of its parents was Traminer, but the other parent remained a mystery for some time, until (at least according to Wikipedia) its other parent was found in the year 2000. Only a single vine of this parent variety remained, barely clinging to life in an overgrown pasture. Apparently, there are plans to try cultivating this mystery variety in the near future, and I can’t help but feel pretty darn excited about that.

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